Smart-Take: Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, most often a result of exposure to high-risk strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). Mayo Clinic defines two types: the most common, squamous cell carcinoma, begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina; and adenocarcinoma, which begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
In its early stages, cervical cancer seldom produces symptoms, making early screening so vital to successful outcomes. At this stage, cancerous cells only exist on the surface.
Surgery—loop electrosurgical excision (LEEP/LLETZ), conization, or simple or radical hysterectomy, for example—is most often recommended for treatment.
In its more advanced stages, symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Vaginal bleeding between periods or after intercourse
- Pelvic pain (that may or may not radiate to the back)
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal discharge that may be heavy, watery, bloody, or have a foul odor
- Rarely, pain during or after urination
Along with the surgical procedures listed above, radiation, chemotherapy, brachytherapy, or some combination of the three is typically discussed to treat cancer cells that have spread into pelvic lymph nodes or lymph nodes that run along the aorta in the abdomen.
When the cancer has spread beyond the pelvic region into other systems (like lungs or bone), it is usually not considered curable.
- Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is available until women and men reach the age of 27, but the CDC recommends vaccination for boys and girls at age 11 or 12 years when the child’s immune response is stronger and before any sexual activity begins. The vaccine is administered in three doses: the second is typically one to two months after the first and the third, six months later.
- Make PAP tests routine. Women should have regular PAP tests that evaluate cell samples from the surface of the cervix and provide evidence of abnormal cell changes that are early indicators of conditions like dysplasia and cancer. The timing for screenings varies based on age and other indicators.
- Use condoms. While strains of HPV are very common and present in most sexually active people, having many partners (who have many partners) increases the chances of contracting HPV. Having other sexually transmitted diseases also increases a person’s risk.